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Saturday, April 14, 2012

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

- Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

As probably the most famous writer in history, Shakespeare knew his stuff. But for once I'm going to have to disagree with him, at least in part: names are crucially important, at least when you're an author choosing names for the characters in your work.

When you're writing fiction, names usually have to fit the characters. Contemporary protagonists in an ordinary world might be Joe, Ian or Kate. But call someone Reginald, Percival or Eustace and readers will immediately think they're either fussy, fusty or just plain old-fashioned. Even worse, a wrongly-picked name may throw them out of the story altogether.

I'm currently at the naming stage while doing early ruminations for my next novel. The challenge when choosing names for historical characters is picking something that's easy to grasp (not to mention pronounce) for the average, modern-day reader. That can be slightly tricky when you're writing in an era like the Anglo-Saxon one, where typical names included Aedelbeorht and Eadburga...


Cara Cooper said...

I really feel for you. I absolutely hate choosing names although when I hit on the right one it can really help to form the character. Funny how some names seem eternal and go on for ever eg. Elizabeth and others just fade away. I love Thomas Hardy's names for his characters - Gabriel Oak just conjurs up a guy who's totally solid!

Aodan Halligan said...

My parents would agree with you on this. They clashed over my name before my christening as mom wanted me to be called Aidan, while dad preferred the Gaelic version, Aodan. Dad won out (rather sneakily) in the end, though. Unknown to my mom, he changed the spelling on my birth cert!

Graham said...

Cara and Aodan, thanks for the comments.

Cara, I agree with you about some names having that eternal quality. I guess it's easy to look at in retrospect, but not when you're in the process of writing!

Love the example you gave. Dickens' Pumblechook was another great one, who he described as "A large hard-breathing middle-aged slow man, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair standing upright on his head, so that he looked as if he had just been all but choked". Doesn't the name fit that description perfectly?

Aodan, I think I agree with your dad! I find English names a bit perfunctory, and Gaelic's so much more interesting. When I was a kid I had an Irish penpal called Ruairi, which for me was the greatest name ever!

Anonymous said...

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